“He helped us to ascend, from misery to hope, on the muscles of his arms and the meaning of his life.” — Rev. Jesse Jackson, from his eulogy for Jackie Robinson, Oct. 27, 1972
He steps gingerly and requires assistance.
His speech, at times, is halting.
But as he copes with Parkinson’s disease, he’s eager and insightful, expansive and inspiring.
Rev. Jesse Jackson is 80 now, a half century removed from his powerful eulogy for Jackie Robinson. And it’s a quarter century since he returned to Riverside Church in New York, at ESPN’s request, to revisit the passion and poignance of that homage.
In February, we visited the Rainbow PUSH Coalition founder and president at the Chicago headquarters, to have him as one of a dozen participants in an ESPN series of firsthand reflections leading up to the 75th anniversary of Robinson breaking the Major League Baseball color barrier, April 15, 1947. From champions of social justice, to legends of the music world, to all-time greats and up and coming athletes, each “Jackie to Me” story is a personal perspective on what Robinson means to them — and society.
“Jackie was in the middle of a racist headwind, he bucked the wind, he survived the wind, he threw everything at it,” says Jackson. “He disproved the theory of Black inferiority.”
And civil rights history followed, with the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregated schools, the refusal by Rosa Parks to be relegated to the back of a Montgomery, Ala. bus and the rise to prominence of Martin Luther King Jr.
“He set the pace for the race and time immemorial,” is how Jackson describes the impetus and impact of Robinson’s courage and success. “He made Blacks speaking out with authority more acceptable.
“Dr. King identified with him very much and he with Dr. King.”
Ruby Bridges says Jackie Robinson forged a path for her as the first Black student to integrate a public elementary school in Louisiana.
“Jackie Robinson, as I see it,” says Ruby Bridges, “is the father pretty much of the civil rights movement.”
Bridges’ life as a civil rights activist and icon dates back to 1960, when she was six years old and famously became a New Orleans elementary school’s first Black pupil. A Norman Rockwell painting immortalized the scene of U.S. Marshals escorting Bridges to the front door, away from a mob of anti-integration white protesters.
Already a recipient of the Presidential Citizens Medal from Bill Clinton, Bridges went to the White House in 2011 and met the country’s first Black president.
As they stood before Rockwell’s depiction, Barack Obama hugged her. Bridges says she could see 10-12 people in the room crying, and she thought, “This isn’t about me and him. It was about all those sacrifices, Jackie Robinson’s, Dr. King’s, Rosa Parks’, those three young men (civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner) who had been murdered in Mississippi.
“It didn’t hit me until then. I realized then how historical and how much this meant to so many people. It was an amazing experience.”
Oscar Robertson recalls personal stories about seeing Jackie Robinson and details his influence on the fight for racial equality.
The experiences for Black athletes who followed in Robinson’s footsteps also entailed indignities and abuse, threats and danger.
Basketball great Oscar Robertson, who as a youth marveled when he got to see Robinson play in Cincinnati, attended an all-Black Indianapolis high school and won two state championships. But he says that one time, before facing an all-white team, “I was threatened over the telephone that if I played, I’d be shot.”
Robertson, who says what he faced was nothing like what Robinson did, nevertheless had to cope with episodes of separate and unequal accommodations from his University of Cincinnati team on the road. One such trip was to Houston, when he says the team stayed at the Shamrock Hilton.
“And the coach comes up and he just said, ‘Hey, you can’t stay here,'” says Robertson. “I’m what, 17, 18 years old. I thought he meant the whole team couldn’t stay there. So he said, ‘No, no, they don’t want you in this hotel.’
“They had a Texas Southern University there and so I stayed there in a cot by myself, lay there the whole afternoon, thinking about what was going on…the closer I got to the game, the more upset I became.
“I kept it within myself. I didn’t say a word to anybody at all. Got dressed, went out on the court. I just went to center court and stayed there.. I didn’t take a shot. People, of course, just started booing, and throwing little things at me. “I don’t even know why I did it, but I did it,” says Robertson. “It’s just something that I felt inside, to be honest.”
Willie O’Ree, the Jackie Robinson of hockey, talks about the advice he received from Robinson as a kid and the adversity he faced.
Willie O’Ree, nicknamed the “Jackie Robinson of hockey” for becoming the National Hockey League’s first Black player in 1958 as a Boston Bruin, says, “I was exposed to racism and prejudice and bigotry, and I fought a lot.
“I fought because I had to, not because I wanted to,” adds the Fredericton, New Brunswick native. “I never fought one time because of racial remarks or racial slurs.
“Players on the opposition just wanted to see what I was made of…back then, none of the players wore any helmets or face shields and these players from the opposition were always taking shots at my head.”
O’Ree says when he broke in, he didn’t realize he was an NHL trailblazer — so he didn’t have that pressure — but he had a different burden. He was keeping secret that he had never regained the ability to see with his right eye that he lost in a junior hockey accident.
“The fear was getting injured in my good eye,” says O’Ree. “But I forgot about it, I just forgot about being blind and I just went out and played. I said, ‘If I get injured, I get injured, but I never deviated from my game.'”
Aa a teenager, O’Ree thought his game might be baseball, and he and his youth team even got to meet Robinson on a trip to Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field in 1949. Robinson seemed surprised, recalls O’Ree, to learn a Black kid was interested in hockey — and he counseled O’Ree to “work hard and stay focused” at whatever sport he chose to play.
After his exposure to bigotry and segregation when he participated in a 1956 Milwaukee Braves tryout camp in Georgia, O’Ree decided to focus solely on Canada’s favorite pastime. In 1962, he was again introduced to Robinson — this time at an NAACP event in Los Angeles — and to his amazement, the retired Dodger remembered him from ’49.
O’Ree, 86, says he doesn’t know what became of photos from his two meetings with Robinson, but he keeps a framed shot of the baseball trailblazer on his wall at home.
Unlike O’Ree’s unheralded 1958 call-up, Robinson’s in ’47 faced known efforts to sabotage it. Dodgers teammates started a petition to keep him off the team, and there was a report in ’47 that St. Louis Cardinals players considered a boycott.
Then a 1997 ESPN “Outside the Lines” documentary, “Breaking the Line: Jackie Robinson’s Legacy,” revealed through interviews with 93 of Robinson’s 107 living former National League opponents that players throughout the league were voting on whether to stage an opening day strike — and that the clandestine plans for a walkout only unraveled at the last minute.
Robinson’s widow, Rachel, said in the 1997 special, “He got death threats, he got all kinds of crank letters, warning letters. You can’t take in all of those things that make you frightened, so you begin to deny them or push them aside. But when the letters began to be very specific about what they were going to do to him, then I started turning them in to the team.
“I would describe Jack as a race man, he was very occupied with the fate and plight of our race, it was very important to contribute to the progress, a preoccupation sometimes more important than what was happening to himself.”
Some opposing players taunted Robinson by bringing black cats, watermelon, fried chicken and other insidious props into their dugouts. The ’97 program also reported that Robinson was hit by pitches more in the first two months of the 1947 season than any player had been in all of ’46.
Jackie Robinson’s oldest living son David shares the lessons he learned from his father.
Robinson’s son, David, says throughout the physical and psychological torment his father endured on and off the field, he drew strength from remembering his roots.
“He grew up in a house without a father. He wanted to be someone who could support his mother, who grew up as a sharecropper and then extended her life as a domestic servant, where money was always a shortage in the household.
“He was able, as he was growing up, to see his grandmother, who was born a slave, his mother’s history of being an oppressed citizen, and knowing that he wanted to impact that on a family level. And when he got the opportunity to impact on a national level, that was an extension of his mission to free his family from oppression and the same oppression existed in the nation.
“All that he went through, he felt, was not a hardship in the sense of what had gone on before him, within his family. And that as brutal as it was, as vicious as the opposition individuals were, that opportunity far exceeded what he had to go through.”
Dusty Baker discusses the impact Jackie Robinson had on his managing career.
Former Dodgers teammates of Robinson’s, like Joe Black, Roy Campanella, Jim Gilliam and Don Newcombe, schooled Dusty Baker on what Robinson had to surmount, when Baker was an L.A. outfielder in the late 1970s. A few years earlier, Baker saw his Atlanta Braves teammate Hank Aaron go through unending hatred as he pursued and surpassed Babe Ruth’s home run record.
When he managed the Chicago Cubs, Baker, now with the Houston Astros, received threatening hate mail that evoked some of what Robinson and Aaron experienced.
“The FBI came to see me — part of the Hate Crimes Division of the FBI — because they thought they had sent me some anthrax,” says Baker. “And then my wife was afraid for me to go out by myself. She was fearful for my life.
“I feel like I was prepared for this by Jackie and by the great Hank Aaron.”
Baker’s introduction to what Robinson endured and how he’d responded began when he was a young boy and would get into fights. He says his father — who coached him — invariably invoked Robinson as the example of how to behave. And although Johnnie B. “Dusty” Baker Jr. says he rapidly tired of hearing that over and over from Johnnie B. Baker Sr., he grew to idolize Robinson as did his dad.
Both Bakers served in the military, as did Robinson, who was court martialed and acquitted after challenging charges against him over his refusal to go to the back of a bus in Texas.
Bobby Bradford talks about his Jazz composition “Stealin’ Home,” a tribute to Jackie Robinson.
Jazz performer, composer and teacher Bobby Bradford was also a military man and says Robinson is a hero to him for defeating hate and thriving under unimaginable pressure.
So when the Baseball Reliquary, an organization celebrating art and culture through the prism of baseball, contacted Bradford about crafting a musical tribute for Robinson’s 100th birthday in 2019, his reaction was euphoric.
“Number one was, ‘Thank you, Jesus,'” says Bradford, now 87 and a 2021 retiree from the Pomona College faculty. “This is the first commission I’ve ever had, and very likely the last. I’ve written lots of music, but I never had anybody approach me about a commission that was a particular mission.”
The CD Bradford and friends recorded from the suite he composed to honor Robinson is titled “Stealin’ Home” and the first cut is “Lieutenant Jackie.”
Chuck D of Public Enemy shares the impact Jackie Robinson made on his career.
A giant of a different musical genre, hip hop, credits Robinson’s determination and defiance as providing the underpinning for some of his groundbreaking work.
Chuck D, leader and co-founder of Public Enemy, says that he tries to capture the overwhelming burden and historic suffering reflected in Robinson’s pivot from his early Dodger days — when his agreement with team president Branch Rickey meant he had to turn the other cheek and keep his bubbling emotions bottled up — to being able to let out his true intensity on the ballfield and beyond.
“If I drew a picture of Jackie Robinson sliding into a base,” says Chuck D, “I would throw a bunch of like semi-images just behind him, like slave ships, all kinds of stuff, also following his slide, like a nation of billions behind him.”
When he wrote “Welcome to the Terrordome,” he says, the very first line epitomizes Robinson: “I got so much trouble on my mind. I refuse to lose.”
A love of baseball and of Robinson comes to Chuck D, he says, from his father for whom the Dodgers and Robinson were number one, as they were for many Black families of the era. When Robinson died, Chuck D was 12, and he says his passing drew him still closer to the sport.
“It was like the president died. Everybody was there and it was on the news. I made up in my mind that baseball was the best thing to follow. I mean, I’m impressionable. This is a key person in baseball. I’m a big baseball fan, but that was like a solid stamp, like ‘Damn right. Baseball’s the game.'”
There’s a lesson for everybody from a conversation Robinson had in his dying days with his son, says David Robinson.
“Three days before his death, he called me. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon. I was at work and he said, ‘Son, let’s take the day off and go to the races.’ Loved to go to the races. Golf was pastime, but he liked to go out to the track.
“I said, ‘Dad, I’m swamped. I can’t get out.’ But looking back on his death, three days later, I could feel that if I had gone that I would’ve heard some words of a father who knew that his health was not good, that he was soon to be passing and that he wanted to spend an afternoon with his son. So my words to all sons and daughters, grandkids included, ‘spend time, learn from, be with your elders and look back on what their objectives were.’
“We’re all Jackie Robinson’s children,” says his son, who for 40 years has lived in Tanzania, where he and his wife — who is from the East African country — raised their 10 children and operate a coffee farm. He’s also a director of the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
“We can embrace the greatness of people in our society who have excelled and say that ‘I too can and will be a challenger and builder of a better society.’ And that is the important thing in a lifetime, as opposed to any of the other things, the batting average or the bank account cannot compare to what an individual can do for his family, for his race, for society and globally.”
Billie Jean King explains how her fight for equality and inclusion was influenced by Jackie Robinson.
One such individual, who has devoted a lifetime to battling for women’s rights and equality for all, is tennis legend Billie Jean King, who was three years old when Robinson shattered MLB’s racial barrier.
“Jackie Robinson inspired me as a child and as an adult to keep going and to keep fighting prejudice,” says King.
In her 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis triumph over Bobby Riggs and through decades of struggles to get her sport to award equal prize money to women, King says she’s drawn strength from Robinson’s perseverance.
“It really helps sometimes to sit back and, when I think things are tough, I start thinking, ‘What about Jackie Robinson?'”
Now a part-owner of the Dodgers, King says she revels in seeing his number 42 on display and Rachel Robinson’s unwavering work to perpetuate his legacy.
Rachel Robinson assisted by son, David (left), and Rev. Jesse Jackson leaving Jackie Robinson’s funeral on Oct. 27, 1972. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Rachel Robinson called Jesse Jackson early in the morning on Oct. 24, 1972, soon after her husband’s passing at age 53. The Robinsons knew Jackson personally for nearly a decade and now she was asking him to fulfill her late husband’s wish to have him preach at his funeral.
“I hurt for a long time, but I only remember writing that sermon out, over and over again,” says Jackson. “Every time I could just sit, I’d just cry.
“And I thought about what he meant to this movement for social justice…The challenge was I romanticized Jackie so much. I loved him so much, he was a hero.
“I was scared to death. All the big preachers lined up to see who was going to say what in the program. It’s kind of a big preacher deal, Jackie Robinson’s funeral.”
Jackson’s eulogy was not filmed, as cameras were not permitted at the service, and complete audio recordings and texts are elusive, but he said, in part:
“Pain, misery, and travail have lost. Jackie is saved. His enemies can leave him alone. His body will rest, but his spirit and his mind and his impact are perpetual and as affixed to human progress as are the stars in the heavens, the shine in the sun and the glow in the moon. This mind, this mission, could not be held down by a grave…
“No grave can hold this body down. It belongs to the ages, and all of us are better off because the temple of God, the man with convictions, the man with a mission, passed this way.”
ESPN senior managing producers Jeff Ausiello and Lauren Stowell, who co-produced with Willie Weinbaum the “Jackie to Me” series of television stories, contributed to this report.